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Pride of place: Lord Collins visits Queer Britain

Queer Britain's exhibition of photos depicting the campaign for equality | John Sturrock

4 min read

The UK’s first national LGBTQ+ museum's compelling photographic exhibition of gay history and relationships does not disappoint

As Neil MacGregor so brilliantly illustrated in his Radio 4 series, The Museums That Make Us, the contents of museums often tell a compelling story and Queer Britain, which has just opened in Kings Cross, is no exception. With its aim to “shine a light on the queer communities’ rich and complex histories” it is the United Kingdom’s first national LGBTQ+ museum open to all, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. The staff were very welcoming, reflecting the inclusive ethos of the museum. 

Its opening photographic display is just a taster, as they are busy getting ready for their debut exhibition this summer with material they’ve been collating over the past four years. However, it does not disappoint: the display begins with images on the theme of “chosen families” celebrating our community’s ability to create imaginative and deep relationships. I lived in communal houses for more than 15 years, and I understand the bond that can form in relationships that defy definition – these photos show the joy and happiness that comes from difference. Many of my housemates from those days still form part of my greater family.

Next is a series of photos depicting the campaign for equality. One that I hadn’t seen before was of Maureen Colquhoun, Labour MP for Northampton North between 1974 and 1979. Colquhoun was a prominent campaigner on access to abortion, gender balance, and protection for sex workers. Outed by The Daily Mail, she fought off efforts by her constituency party to deselect her but lost her seat at the following general election. In an article for Gay News in 1977, Colquhoun said her sexuality had “nothing whatever to do with my ability to do my job as an MP”. She said she had always been open about her relationship and that “gay relationships were as valid and as entitled to respect as any other relationship”.

These photos show the joy and happiness that comes from difference

A key battle against discrimination followed the introduction of Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s government to “prohibit the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities”. One impact of this law event was the renewal of LGBT organisations, including the formation of Stonewall. One of the photographs on display features one of the founders of Stonewall and now Lord (Michael) Cashman, who said Section 28 was brought in during a period when the LGBTQ+ community was stigmatised, and it was “designed to kick us firmly underground”. If you have not done so yet, read Michael’s excellent autobiography One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square. His first-hand account of the campaign against this pernicious law brilliantly illustrates the successful fightback of the LGBTQ+ community which foreshadowed so much progress. 

As I walked from the museum across what is now Granary Square in the modern Kings Cross development, I reflected on the exhibition and the incredible changes that have occurred in the lives of the LGBTQ+ community both personally and politically. I also thought of the huge changes to the King Cross area. At the time of Section 28 it was full of dark and decaying warehouses, yet, located in some of those old buildings were some of the best gay-friendly clubs and bars. The Cross and Bagleys were two I knew well; they were fun, safe places where nobody judged your sexuality. But the outside world was different; even getting to the clubs was fraught with danger – Goods Way and York Way were not safe streets. Homophobic attacks in the area were not uncommon, caused by a hostile social and political climate, further fuelled by Section 28. 

Today, Bagleys is a modern university campus, and The Cross contains posh shops and cafes. The square is an open cosmopolitan space very representative of the broader diverse London community. I’m pleased with the changes and the progress made, but glad there is also a space to remind us of the journey we’ve been on.

Lord Collins of Highbury is a Labour peer

Queer Britain
Location: King’s Cross, London 
Opening times: Wednesday to Sunday: 12–6pm. Free Entry


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